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Once first-place Cubs fall to fear of unknown


If there is one painful emotion that is shared by most of mankind, it is fear of the unknown.

A thumping at the door late at night when visitors are not expected. The squeaking of a floorboard when no one is about. Walking down a dark, deserted street or into a room filled with strangers.

It is why people look under beds before retiring. Or cover their eyes during a frightening movie. And why agoraphobics won't leave their homes: They are terrified by what's out there, even though they don't know what it is.

Shrinks have written enough books and papers about the subject to fill a library, while making a tidy profit listening to the frettings of the fearful.

It is a fascinating subject, and in Chicago we may be seeing this fear expressing itself in an unusual way.

Let us look back to Friday, May 26.

On that day, the Cubs were in first place in their division by three full games.

They had a splendid record of 17 victories and only 8 defeats, despite having played most of their games away from the so-called Friendly Confines.

Only one team in all of Major League Baseball had a slightly better record.

That was on May 26.

Since then, they have had a dismal record of only 12 victories and 21 defeats.

How can such an abrupt change be explained? Some of the more poetically gifted sportswriters call it a June swoon. Those who are scientifically inclined say it is like water seeking its natural level.

Not good enough. I believe that the answer can be found in man's fear of the unknown.

Something happened on May 26 that caused this fear to sweep through the clubhouse and bring on what could be a form of subconscious group hysteria.

On that day, my column appeared with this headline: "Cubs are in 1st -- sell 'em while they're hot."

The column suggested that the time was right for Tribune Co., the team's owner, to find some rich person who would like to buy the baseball franchise.

Somewhere there had to be a gullible fat cat who could be seduced by the prospect of owning a first-place team, and the dream of swaggering into a raucous World Series locker room and having champagne poured on his head by a bunch of giddy bozos.

By selling the Cubs, the company would relieve the reporters and editors of the Chicago Tribune of shame, guilt and an undeserved stigma.

Many people believe that the Tribune owns the Cubs. That is not so.

Like the Cubs franchise, the newspaper is owned by Tribune Co., a big corporation that also owns other newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, book and software publishers and is leaping into that cyberspace stuff.

They are all separate business entities, and the Cubs are one of the smallest.

So the people at the Chicago Tribune have no more to do with the success or failure of the Cubs than they do with the obits in a newspaper in Florida.

But many fans don't know this and persist in asking reporters and editors, some of whom are White Sox fans or hate baseball, to get them tickets when the Cubs are doing well or berating us when they flounder.

Reporters with frayed collars have been accused of being cheapskates for failing to make Greg Maddux one of America's richest louts.

What does that column have to do with the Cubs' sudden tailspin?

I'm sure any shrink already knows the answer.

The Cubs players read that column and thought: "Sell us? To who? We don't know who!"

It's the frightening unknown.

The players realize that they are now owned by a corporation with so many other interests that the top executives have no time to run to the ballpark to say: "Klutz, didn't anybody ever teach you to slide when you are racing the ball to home plate?"

But if they are sold, it could be to an incarnation of their most terrifying childhood fear -- a bogyman who would be lurking in his sky box every day. An owner who might appear in the clubhouse at any moment to say: "You cannot hit the ball? Then hit the bricks, 'cuz you are fired."

There are such owners, and their players are usually twitchy, insecure, and wish they could come play on the North Side where everyone treats them gently.

So the mere thought of the unknown got them losing at a frantic pace.

I don't know if it was a conscious effort or an instinct that began blipping in their brain-bottoms. But I'm certain that they knew that as bumblers they are less likely to be sold into the clutches of the unknown bogyman.

But I still hope it happens. And that during the first night game, the lights go out and we all yell: "Boo!"

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